China's New Criminal Laws Reach to Dissidents Overseas
BEIJING — One week after a bomb exploded blocks away from its parliament building, China passed a new criminal code that can be used to clamp down on challenges ranging from peaceful dissent to terrorism.
In the face of an increasingly violent nationalist movement among Muslims in northwest Xinjiang province, China's top law-making body outlined stiff penalties up to the death sentence for terrorists.
The new code may also be used to punish everything from putting articles on the Internet that criticize China to protesting a crackdown on religious groups.
The law specifically targets foreigners who support Chinese political activists and could apply to acts committed as far away as Paris, Boston, and Hong Kong.
Wang Hanbin, vice-chairman of the National People's Congress, said China aimed to stop "crimes that currently constitute the most grave danger to the state." He said that "counterrevolutionary offenses" would be replaced by "crimes against state security" to reflect China's having left behind "the period of revolution ... and large-scale class struggle."
But while stripping the criminal law of its Marxist clothing, China has left intact a body of punishments for speech, writing, and assembly. "Abolishing counterrevolutionary crimes is largely a cosmetic change," said Jim Feinerman, an expert on Chinese law at Georgetown University in Washington. "They can still use the new laws to jail political figures for something as simple as writing pamphlets," he said.
Xiang Chunyi, vice-head of the legislature's law committee, said that the Congress aimed to make the law more predictable. "In determining counterrevolutionary crimes, it has been very difficult to judge whether one opposed the revolution," Mr. Xiang said in an interview.
Legislator Xiang conceded that not a single defendant jailed for counterrevolutionary acts would be released due to the changes. "The past cannot be revisited and revised," he said.
A major revision in the criminal law is its ban on foreign support or funding for those considered subversives in China.
"Foreign groups channeled funds into China during the June 4th  incident," Xiang said. "America has various foundations, many of them government-funded ... to support Chinese dissidents," he added.
This revision "is a warning to outside groups, especially in the US and Hong Kong, that support Chinese democracy activists," Professor Feinerman said. "And in China, accepting money from a foreign human rights group could itself could be considered subversion." He said that the law could also be targeted at the 40,000 to 50,000 Chinese studying in the US, especially those who have "put information on the Internet for domestic consumption in China."
He said the new "legal screens on China's open-door policy" were a "retrograde step" and especially puzzling in light of an overall liberalization in Chinese law in the past several years.
"There are far fewer political prosecutions now than even five years ago," Feinerman said. He added that recent legal changes give defendants earlier access to lawyers and limit the detention time of suspects without charges being filed.
If China's human rights protections are compared with those of the West, they would still be found lacking. But if contrasted with the country's own past, marked by millennia of imperial rule and then Mao Zedong's lawless dictatorship, the legal system has made great strides in the last 20 years.
"Outside of major dissidents," Feinerman said, "most Chinese have broader freedoms than at any time in Chinese history."
Congressman Xiang says that many fellow legislators hope to bring more progressive changes to the law over time and adds that a real debate is emerging over some issues. He cites as an example that "some people think the use of the death penalty should be restricted," and adds that "in the future, it will be."
Chinese television quoted one legislator from northeast China as saying the revised criminal law "allows the police to retain too much unchecked power."
"Many Chinese think there should be more limits on the police, but the broadcasting of that view on state-run TV represents a real breakthrough," says a university lecturer in Beijing.
One of the rules passed on Friday prescribes harsh penalties for "anyone who stirs up hatred among ethnic groups." The law says that those who "take advantage of national or religious problems to instigate dismembering of the state" will be punished for subversion.
"It's pretty clear that they are creating a legal basis for the crackdown on minority-led nationalism," says Dru Gladney, a researcher at the East-West Center in Honolulu.
The new laws also "provide a justification for restricting religious movements regarded as threatening to the state," he says. "China watched the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the part religious groups played in those events," Feinerman said.
Since then, Beijing has launched a crackdown on religious groups ranging from Christians to Buddhists to Muslims.